How to read the historic landscape – part three

Every landscape has a hidden history, and in North Wales there is history everywhere you look. (Part 3 of 3)

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This week regular blogger Phil Thomas returns to the fine art of reading the historic landscape – something that will bring a whole new dimension to your rambles…

Click here to read part one of this mini series or here for part two.

It’s easy to be swept away by North Wales’s beautiful landscapes, but at the same time it’s easy to miss its subtleties. Is that a boulder, or a standing stone? Is that a pile of rocks or the remains of a burial chamber? And is the path you’re walking a route for tourists, or have people and livestock trodden this route for hundreds, if not thousands of years?

Every landscape has a hidden history, and in North Wales there is history everywhere you look. In this, the third and final of three posts, we’ll share with you the history behind the landscapes – how to spot old routes and settlements while enjoying the great outdoors here in North Wales.

Ancient routes in and around North Wales

Our oldest routes date from around the same time as standing stones and stone circles. They would have been created simply by the repeated passage of feet and livestock – there was no surfacing or drainage, unlike the later Romans. They can be hard to spot simply because if any trace still exists, they may have long since been covered over.

A long-distance walking trail that follows a medieval pilgrimage route from the Welsh borders to Bardsey Island takes in some of these ancient ways. There’s also evidence that standing stones act as way-markers for upland routes across hills and mountains. One obvious example is the route of the North Wales Coast Path. High above Penmaenwawr the track leading out of the village of Rowen passes a cromlech and standing stones, towards Bwlch y Ddeufaen (which the Romans used later).

Other things to look out for include sunken lanes (called holloways in other parts of the UK), where a road or track is below the height of the surrounding land. The constant trampling of feet, hooves, carts and cars have pushed these routes deep into the ground. They are frequently lined with trees. Sunken lanes are fairly common in low-lying parts of North Wales but some are more obvious than others. They tend to twist and turn, unlike later Roman routes!

North Wales also boasts plenty of green lanes, simply well-trodden paths that have never been surfaced but are often grown over with grass. Many were old drovers’ routes, used by farmers moving livestock to market or from summer to winter pastures. A great example of a green lane is near Siambar Wen between Llanrwst, a medieval lane between the B5427 and the A470 in the Conwy Valley.

Then there are packhorse routes, which can be more difficult to spot as many have been built over or lost forever. The biggest giveaways are packhorse bridges. You can find one at Pont Pen y Benglog, the bridge that takes the A5 across the Ogwen Falls in Snowdonia. It’s easy when admiring the falls to miss the remains of the bridge directly beneath the arch of Telford’s more modern construction. There’s another great arched packhorse bridge, often covered in moss and ferns, over the River Machno near the Machno Falls.

A quick look at any map will tell you that, yes, the Romans built roads in North Wales too. But be careful. Thomas Telford’s A5 replaced older, more twisting routes – but this relatively straight line through North Wales was built in the early 1800s and owes little, if anything, to the Romans. Instead, the major Roman road through west Wales links Camarthen in the south to Caerhun, near Conwy in the north, and passes close to Trawsfynydd and Betws-y-Coed as it crosses Snowdonia. For telltale signs, Roman tracks typically have a camber, with a drainage ditch either side. Some kerbstones may remain. As they can be difficult to spot you’re sometimes better looking at Ordnance Survey maps, or even Google/Bing satellite views can provide visual clues.

Another type of route North Wales has an abundance of is the quarry or mining tramway. Many of Snowdonia’s mountains are marked by steep inclines, or banked routes on which tramlines or narrow gauge tracks were laid. Ffestiniog‘s railway is a slate route from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the docks at Porthmadog. Many of these disused tracks make great walking tracks or cycling routes, though some are in a ruinous state. Part of the walk round Llyn Padarn uses an old railway line which once took slate from Llanberis to Caernarfon.

Ancient settlements and Roman towns

There are ancient hut circles all over North Wales, remains of early neolithic settlements. They’re most common in upland areas of undeveloped or un-farmed land, such as the clusters found in the hills around Llanberis.

Yet some of the best preserved ancient settlements are on Anglesey. Ty Mawr hut circles on Holy Island near Holyhead likely date back to 500BC. Slightly more modern is Din Lligwynear Moelfre on Anglesey. These well-preserved stone-built huts in an enclosure date from the third of fourth centuries AD. Later still in the timeline, just off the beach road between Newborough village and the forest is Llys Rhosyr, the remains of one of the Royal courts of Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Gwynedd, dating from the 13th century.

Aberdaron, at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula and jumping-off point for the pilgrims travelling to Bardsey Island, could be one of the oldest settlements in North Wales. The Iron Age hill fort at nearby Castell Odo, on Mynydd Ystum, was built earlier, we think some time between 2850 and 2650 BC.

The origins of many of our towns and villages are hinted at in their place names. ‘Chester’ (just over the border) signifies a Roman fortified site, and the Welsh for Chester is ‘Caer’. So Caernarfon’s name tells us it was once the site of a Roman fortification, called Segontium, the low-wall remains of which you can visit today. Holyhead in Welsh is Caergybi. Sure enough, the town centre is built around St Cybi’s Church, which itself is built inside one of Europe’s few three-walled Roman forts (the fourth boundary being the sea, which used to come up to the fort).

Far less ancient – but just as fascinating perhaps – are the towns that grew up around the Industrial Revolution and Snowdonia’s mining industries. The likes of Beddgelert, Tremadog, Porthmadog feature handsome Victorian buildings made from slate. In the forest above Betws-y-Coed is the abandoned mining village of Rhiwddolion, found along Sarn Helen Roman road. Three of the hamlet’s old buildings have been restored.

We haven’t even mentioned the medieval towns of North Wales, many of which boast castles and town walls. They are the more obvious signs of history in the area!

Time to turn detective…

Now you’ve been given some tips as to what to look out for, and some fine examples of ancient history in North Wales, it’s time to get hunting! During your wanderings in North Wales, take your time. Stop to really look at the landscape, the land beneath your feet and the landmarks around you. Many of the things you see could have a bigger story to tell…